Essays Horror Film

It helps them detach: Midsommar as reproductive horror

From the creeping paranoia of Rosemary’s Baby to the gory births of the Alien franchise, imagery of pregnancy and birth has proved a fertile ground for horror directors to explore and exploit. Midsommar, Ari Aster’s 2019 folk horror outing, is preoccupied with themes of seasonality and rebirth, so it’s no surprise that the film is saturated with imagery that evokes the reproductive cycle. Protagonist Dani’s journey from traumatised onlooker to embittered cultist is coded as a journey from conception to birth, and from infantilism to hard won maturity. In the process, Midsommar reveals a deep ambivalence, both towards the physical act of childbirth and the emotional reawakening Dani experiences. 

Dani’s journey begins with regression. After learning that her entire family has died in a murder-suicide, she screams and sobs uncontrollably, curling in a fetal position in her boyfriend, Christian’s, lap, while the camera moves past her to focus on the snow swirling through the night outside her window. The entirety of the scene, from Dani’s positioning to the lack of lighting, makes use of womblike imagery to emphasise her retreat into darkness and isolation. Dani’s regression into a dependent state is further emphasized by Christian’s treatment of her in the following scenes. Desperate to avoid further abandonment, she excuses his dismissive and cruel behavior, which includes planning an international trip without telling her. Visual cues and her reliance on Christian show that Dani has reverted to a childlike state. Trapped in a limbo where maturation is limited by her own grief and Christian’s neglect, she is waiting to be born again. 

Unlike the chilly winter imagery that dominates the scenes set in the United States, the Hårga, the mysterious cult that Dani, Christian, and a group of his grad school friends travel to, overflows with sunlight and blooming vegetation. Basing their lifestyle on the cycles of the seasons, the Hårga members are preoccupied with their midsummer festival, and images of fertility crowd each scene, from an abundance of flower crowns to more pointed props. At one point, the camera lingers on a tapestry showing a young girl creating a love charm. In the final panel, showing her marriage, she is heavily pregnant. The focus on fertility hints at the pivotal role the Hårga’s philosophies will play in Dani’s reawakening.

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Despite this focus on fertility imagery, children aren’t afforded much screen time in Midsommar, with two notable exceptions. In the communal sleeping quarters, a baby cries incessantly during the group’s first night, while a troubled Dani watches. The next day, a cult member tells her that the Hårga children are raised communally. “Her mother is on pilgrimage,” she says, referring to the baby. “It helps them to detach.” This throwaway bit of dialogue foreshadows Dani’s character development. Like the baby, she must detach herself from her old ties, and learn to rely on the Hårga, a place where she is assured that she “will always fe[el] held.” 

Although the kindness and concern the cult members show Dani is far superior to Christian and his callous friend group, Midsommar stops short of vindicating them. One of the symbols of these conflicting viewpoints is the film’s other significant child character, Ruben. Ruben, the Hårga’s oracle, is “a product of inbreeding” responsible for adding to the Rubi Radr, the cult’s gospel. Ruben appears in only a handful of scenes and never speaks, but his appearances are instructive, usually foreshadowing or interrupting an act of violence. Christian’s friend Josh sees him outside the temple when he contemplates photographing the Rubi Radr, a decision that will lead to his murder. When Christian is drugged and raped in the film’s climax, a shot of Ruben interrupts the scene. He acts as a powerful visual statement of the Hårga’s disregard, not only for cultural taboos but for human life as well.

When it occurs, Dani’s reawakening is governed by imagery of conception and birth. Persuaded to join in the cult’s May Queen competition, she is dressed in one of the white dresses favoured by Hårga members and wears an elaborate flower headdress. The colour white is traditionally associated with purity, and, coupled with the fertility imagery of the flowers, her outfit acts as significant foreshadowing, signalling that Dani will be responsible for her own growth and change, in a sort of virgin birth. 

While Dani finds acceptance and community during the competition, her boyfriend Christian experiences a similar brush with the Hårga that acts as a dark mirror to Dani’s journey from dependence to liberation. When Dani is crowned May Queen and spirited off to bless the land, Christian is taken away to endure a ceremony of his own. He is also dressed in traditional Hårga clothing and brought to have sex with a young woman laying on a bed of flowers, echoing the imagery of purity and fertility associated with Dani earlier. Unlike Dani, though, Christian’s growth will only come if he resists the cult’s machinations, refusing to betray his girlfriend as he has repeatedly over the course of the film. Christian’s tragedy is that he is never given the opportunity to make this final choice, as he’s been drugged and the encounter amounts to rape. Christian’s downfall is engineered by the same cult members who offer a family to Dani, once again casting their motives with deep ambivalence. 

When Dani returns and finds Christian with the girl, she doubles over, vomiting and screaming. She is taken to the dormitory by the other women, who attempt to comfort her while she wails. On her hands and knees, she hyperventilates while the women gather around her, echoing her breaths and screaming with her. The theme of rebirth comes to a head in this scene, with Dani finally sloughing off her old life in a series of actions – screaming, rhythmic breathing, and bearing down – eerily reminiscent of giving birth. A cut to the girl Christian is with declaring “I can feel it! I feel the baby,” during this scene underscores the connection between Dani’s induction into the cult and the physical act of labour.   

It’s impossible to not feel satisfaction for Dani as she finds some measure of love and support with the women of the Hårga, and viewers can even read Midsommar as a dark fairy tale with redemption at its core: Dani casts off the darkness and apathy of her old life and steps into the light. That the film seems to resist such an interpretation doesn’t discount it, but it does add another layer of complexity to an already multifaceted story.

The anxiety surrounding Dani’s rebirth is seeded throughout Midsommar, from Ruben, to Christian’s rape, to the simple fact that the Hårga use murder, gaslighting, and manipulation to achieve their ends. In the end, these actions are no better – and certainly more physically violent – than the callous treatment Dani endures from Christian and his friends. That the Hårga seem to genuinely care for her may offer hope – or cold comfort. This ambivalence finds an outlet through the imagery of birth that Dani and the others enact, showcasing the pain and ugliness of the act as much as its redemptive potential. 

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